I remember it like it was yesterday- the huge blue sky, the sun beating on my skin, and trees as far as the eye can see. I was on a family vacation in one of the most beautiful cities in the midwest. At only ten-years-old, I hadn’t traveled much outside of California so I was overly excited about driving from city to city in an RV with my family and some family friends.
After over a day of driving, we finally arrived at one of our destinations and I couldn’t have been more eager to explore the stunning grounds. We came across a small ice cream shop and all the parents agreed it was the perfect place to stop for a snack.
I was obsessed with mint chocolate chip at the moment, so naturally, I didn’t protest.
The shop was adorable with white windows and a light blue trim. With my friend right behind me, I opened the door to the shop and suddenly, the store went quiet. I’m talking, quiet to the point where you could literally hear a pin drop. To my surprise, everyone in the shop was staring at me and I remember quickly looking down.
I made my way up to the counter where there was a tall, blonde woman standing behind it, who looked to be in her forties. Her face was cold as stone, and she looked rather unhappy for a woman who was working in a ice cream shop.
“What are you going to get?” I whispered to my friend.
“Rocky road,” she quickly said, which wasn’t surprising because this was always her flavor of choice.
I nodded and inched closer to the counter, figuring I would take the initiative and order first. “Could I please have two scoops of mint chocolate chip in a cone?“ I said. I was always taught to say please and thank you to everyone, so ordering ice cream was no exception.
The woman immediately turned away, as though I was not even speaking to her. I tried again. “Excuse me miss? Could I please get two scoops of the mint chip ice cream in a cone?” Again nothing.
I looked around the store and everyone had their faces down. No one would look at me.
As my confusion began to grow, the ice cream clerk brushed over me and looked at my friend (who also had blonde hair and blue eyes) and asked her what kind of ice cream she wanted. My friend was quiet and before she could say a word, her mother walked through the door.
“Girls, have you ordered?” my friend’s mom asked.
“Um. I did, but I don’t think she heard me,” I reasoned before trying again. “May I have two scoops of mint chocolate chip please?” Again, no response from the woman who still wouldn’t look at me.
“Ma’am,” my friend’s mom said. “Can you please get her some mint chocolate chip?” Now, the woman ignored her.
“Excuse me, why won’t you get her ice cream?”
The ice cream clerk huffed. “Look. We don’t serve her kind here,” she snapped.
My friend’s mom literally took a step back. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Latinos or Indians.”
What she said hit me like a ton of bricks. Growing up in a family with mixed ethnicities was just a normal part of life living in Southern California. I’m half Latina, and also North African and Jewish and luckily, living in Los Angeles I never really experienced much racism because the city was so diverse.
But this incident in the midwest stuck with me, and I remember getting home from that vacation and wanting to lose myself in books, TV, and movies, desperately looking for characters like me. But the thing was, I couldn’t find any, and after being treated poorly on vacation, this lack of representation made me feel like something was wrong with me.
Everything sort of spiraled downhill from there. I remember many nights crying to my mom, asking her, “Why don’t I have blonde hair and blue eyes?” She would always tell me that my dark hair and dark eyes made me beautiful, but I didn’t believe her.
I remember spending many of my early teen years trying to get my hair lighter by spraying on lemon juice and laying out in the sun. My hair ended up turning a dreadful color of orange but as long as it wasn’t dark brown I was happy. I also made sure to put on the highest SPF when I did spend time in the sun, to make sure my skin did not become any darker. I even started to tell people I was “Italian, not Latina,” whenever anyone would ask me.
But after all those years of not being able to accept who I was, something truly amazing happened – Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Eva Longoria, and Shakira all started to make waves in entertainment. Believe it or not, seeing these Latinas killing it in the entertainment industry helped me to become more confident in who I was. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder, if I would’ve seen diverse characters in books after the incident on vacation, would it have affected me as much?
When I started to write my debut novel Hollywood With Hunter it was a no-brainer to have diverse characters from all walks of life and to have my main character Latina. This was non-negotiable for me.
The whole reason I stuck to my guns and fought so hard for diversity is because I wrote the character that I believe I needed as a child and teenager, especially after getting treated like a nobody on vacation.
The need for diverse books is vital, and this is why I will always keep writing them.
Valerie Tejeda is an entertainment journalist and author who spends her days reporting on books, television, and all things pertaining to pop culture, and spends her nights writing novels for teens. Her stories have appeared on a variety of different publications, including: Vanity Fair, MTV, The Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Latina, Yahoo! Shine, Cosmopolitan, and more. Hollywood Witch Hunter is her YA debut.
Hollywood Witch Hunter is available for purchase.